According to the author of Deuteronomy a mandate for genocide (in order to retake the promised land), though masqueraded as divine will, is given to the Israelite army: “You must completely destroy the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, just as the LORD your God has commanded you” (20:17).
This is one of many texts like it from the Bible, and there are countless stories from history eerily similar. We’ve seen this sort of violence in the horrors involving the Tutsis and Hutus of Rwanda, the Jewish Holocaust survivors, and the Native Americans under European colonisation. This is what is known as genocide – the systematic slaughter of a race or group of people in the name of a god (as in the case of the Israelites) or an ideology. Christian scholar Thom Stark explains this biblical dilemma (1):
“According to the Bible, this was the experience of hundreds of thousands of Canaanites, Midianites, and Amalekites whose testimony is lost to history, preserved only in the memories of their killers – the Israelites. In the books of Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua, the Canaanites are depicted much like the Jewish people would later be characterized in Nazi propaganda, and much like the Native Americans would be portrayed in the annals of Europeans – unclean, uncivilised, inhuman, hostile, subversive, and godless. History is written by the victors. Like the ancient Israelites, most perpetrators of genocide justify their actions by reference to divine will and in a national destiny in which “all the clans of the earth will be blessed” through the hegemony of Israel (Gen 12:2-3), or Rome, or Germany, or the United States” (1). Similarly Christian biblical professor Peter Enns articulates his view:
“Then… the land of Canaan – the Promised Land – God commanded the Israelites to go from town to town and exterminate the current residents – men, women, children, and animals -and move in. If we read this anywhere else, we would call it genocide. Later, for much of Israel’s history, warfare with other nations was as common as football in October, and defeating Israel’s enemies wasn’t a necessary evil but brought God glory and honor” (2). On the point of genocide Enns provides an important insight, and on to which Stark uses to demonstrate the double standard employed by biblical inerrantists, he explains:
“Of course, now with a single voice biblical inerrantists will condemn genocide. They all agree that nothing could be farther from God’s will. Yet despite the obvious parallels between the genocides perpetrated by the ancient Hebrews and those of modern day religious and ideological fanatics, biblical inerrantists make an exception for ancient Israel, insisting that the Canaanite genocides were not only wholly justified, but good. Although every genocidal regime claims to have the sanction of some deity, inerrantists insist that in ancient Israel’s case, it was true. It had to be true, because it’s in the Bible. Yahweh really did command his people to kill every living and breathing man, woman, and child in the land of Canaan – and in the overarching scheme of things, these actions too reveal a God of love.” In our next addition reviewing the genocide in the Bible we will be critiquing some common apologetic explanations that attempt to defend these commands as the instruction of God.
However, Stark notes that he does not believe God actually commanded this, instead the ancient Israelites hijacked God to condone their acts: “To be clear, my argument is not that God is evil for commanding genocide. I am not claiming “to know better than God” – an accusation Christian apologists often make against Christians who hold my position. My contention is that God never did command the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites wholesale.” Stark notes that this makes sense if the historian considers the ancient context from which the Israelites found themselves within:
“These accounts reflect a standard ideology that Israel shared with man of its ancient neighbours, and I read them as products of ancient culture, rather than products of pure divine revelation. Therefore, my claim is not that I know better than God, but that we all know better than those who wrongly killed women and children in God’s name.”
Stark concludes: “I am not interested in some abstract philosophical discussion about the problem of evil. This is not a game of semantics or an exercise in theodicy. This is indiscriminate human carnage, and it involves real people, with real lives, real relationships, and real aspirations. This is what the Sudanese military and the Janjaweed militia are doing to black Africans in Darfur, what the Tutsis and the Hutus did each other in Rwanda, what the Nazi party did to six million Jewish people all across Europe, what the Ottoman government did to one and a half million Armenians in Turkey. This is what the European invaders did to the Native Americans in the name of Manifest Destiny. And according to the Bible, this is what the Hebrews did the Canaanites in the name of Yahweh Sabaoth – He Who Raises Armies.”
1. Stark, T. 2011. The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When it Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It).
2. Enns, P. 2014. The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It.